Can mindfulness lower your cancer risk?
If you spend as little as five minutes a day on mindful breathing, it may help you eat better, exercise more and reduce your risk for disease.
Mindfulness is the simple practice of paying attention to the present moment. It can make you feel less stressed and more focused on each task you do.
And mindfulness can help you sustain a healthy lifestyle, too. That's great news for those of you who would like to lower your cancer risk.
Mindfulness supports healthy choices of all kinds, including healthy eating and exercising more.
So how can you cultivate mindfulness? And what does it feel like to be mindful?
“My experience is that mindfulness increases self-awareness. I’m more conscious of what is happening to me and what I need,” says Kathrin Milbury, Ph.D., associate professor in MD Anderson’s department of Behavioral Science. “And one of the simplest aspects of practicing mindfulness is mindful breathing.”
To take the first step toward mindful living, all you have to do is sit still for a short period of time every day, and focus on your breath. You could call it a daily meditation.
Choose a comfortable seated position, set a timer for five minutes and pay attention to what it feels like to breathe in and out.
“This mindful breathing practice puts us in touch with our body and with the present moment,” says Milbury.
During mindful breathing, your mind does not have to be a blank slate. It means you don’t get involved in your thoughts. You let them pass by without adding any judgement or analysis. You watch the thought-train drive past.
“Just five minutes of breathing in and out seems almost too simple to have any kind of benefit, but it is actually one of the most effective techniques for slowing down and relaxing,” says Milbury.
Benefits of mindfulness
If you can commit to five minutes of mindful breathing every day, the effects can spread throughout your life. Here are some benefits of this kind of meditation:
It can boost your productivity. Just five minutes of mindfulness each morning can help you get more done throughout the day because you get less distracted. You can concentrate better on the task at hand.
“People start out more relaxed and tend to be more focused for the rest of the day,” Milbury says.
It can help balance your emotions. We can’t always control our environment but we can control our response to it. Mindfulness practice can help you keep impulsive responses to a minimum.
“Sometimes if we get stressed we might say or do things that we don’t want to,” says Milbury. “Mindfulness meditation helps us stay calm in difficult situations and respond in ways that are more true to ourselves.”
It can help you make better choices. Mindfulness increases self-awareness, which can have a big impact on our decisions.
MD Anderson Senior Mind/Body Intervention Specialist Rosalinda Engle was able to overcome overeating with her mindfulness practice.
“For me the key was to understand why I over ate,” says Engle. “It’s like water settling in a glass. Once you wait for everything to become still, you can more clearly see what is going on.”
Through mindfulness, Engle came to understand that she was afraid she would not have enough food because she grew up as one of five children.
“I was eating as if there would be nothing left when I got to the table,” Engle says. “I taught myself to eat mindfully so that when I had a treat, I could make it small and truly enjoy it without worrying there wouldn’t be enough.”
You may sleep better. Mindfulness breathing does not have to be done in the morning. You might find it easier to find time later in the day. Mindful breathing before bed can set you up for a good night of rest.
“Nighttime can be an excellent time of day to do it, especially if you have trouble sleeping,” says Milbury.
Overcoming mindfulness challenges
One of the biggest challenges when it comes to mindfulness is making it a daily practice.
“Start small, even if it is just one minute,” says Milbury. “Put it on the calendar, set an alarm and commit to doing it. If you miss a day, you can simply start again the next day.”
Once you get going, you can expand to five minutes, or more. Don't get discouraged if you feel like your mind is crowded with thoughts while you meditate.
“The key is to not get upset, but to keep practicing letting the thoughts go,” says Milbury. “The meditation will still have benefit and over time it will lead to improved focus and reduced stress.”
Sometimes meditation can lead you to remember past emotions or situations that can be difficult. Milbury recommends talking with a supportive friend or journaling as well as getting professional help from a psychologist or counselor if needed. This may mean you can continue to get the benefits of mindfulness.
“Mindfulness is a wonderful way to start a healthy life, not just defined by physical health, but social and psychological health,” Milbury says. “It allows us to live a fuller life because we make more conscious choices and re-learn how to pay attention to small things that give us joy.”